EPB is the highest rated mid-sized utility in the South for customer service and reliability, according to a new report by J.D. Power, the leading consumer and marketing research organization for rating businesses.

EPB's score of 737 (on a 1,000-point scale) was the second highest for any municipal or investor-owned electric utility in the country, behind only the 743 score by Clark Public Utilities in Vancouver, Wash.

The honor comes a month after Consumer Reports magazine rated EPB the best utility in the country for customer service in a separate survey of its readers.

EPB Chairman Joe Ferguson said the favorable grades from EPB customers reflect the utility's local ownership, public service and management focus on serving the customer.

The fiber optics network EPB first built in 2010 to upgrade its electric grid led the way for EPB to develop the first citywide gigabit-per-second internet service anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. The fiber optic system in the past year earned $23.5 million in net income on revenues of nearly $135 million from more than 80,000 customers.

That was even more profitable than EPB's electric business, which last year earned a mere $3.5 million on revenus of $563.8 million.

The fiber optic system by EPB has not only surpassed the number of customers for rival Comcast within EPB's footprint, it also has helped keep electricity rates at least 5 percent below what they would otherwise be if EPB didn't offer a diversified product mix.

EPB power sales in many months of the past year were the lowest in eight years because of mild weather and continued conservation and energy efficiency by businesses and homeowners, EPB President David Wade said.

Chattanooga's smart grid, which has reduced power outages by an average of 60 percent, earns high marks for customer satisfaction as a result of the quality and reliability of the service, Wade added.

J.D. Power, which has conducted its annual assessment of utilities for the past 18 years, also said EPB is among the top seven brands for large and midsized utilities nationally. The results were the best ever for EPB, officials said, and came in a year in which power utilities kept rates down and earned more favor with consumers.

Although customer-reported monthly electric bills have fallen to their lowest levels in 10 years and overall satisfaction rose for the fourth consecutive year, electric utility providers still struggle to match other industries in customer satisfaction, according to J.D. Powers.

"The lesson that utilities can learn from other high-performing service providers is that to excel you need a culture that puts customers and employees first," said John Hazen, senior director of the utility practice at J.D. Power. "And because customer expectations continue to increase, you need to have a mindset of continuous improvement to keep up."

In its 18th year, the 2016 study included 137 utility brands across the country and found that customers gave EPB very high marks for the professionalism of its employees.

During EPB's monthly board meeting, Ferguson praised outgoing CEO Harold DePriest for helping build the customer-focused culture at EPB over the past two decades as head of the city-owned utility.

"You picked a great time to retire — going out on top," Ferguson told DePriest after giving the retiring CEO a Skilcraft bandsaw for his woodworking projects in retirement.

DePriest, the 67-year-old EPB engineer who helped lead the utility into offering competitive internet, phone and television service, said EPB has avoided installation charges, worked with customers on bad debts and added services that consumers want.

Under DePriest, EPB also helped lead Chattanooga to become the first "Gig City," with the fastest internet in the country, which has helped attract a number of technology startups to town.

"Harold, your have not only transformed EPB but also this entire city by the work you have done," former Chattanooga Mayor Jon Kinsey, an EPB director, told DePriest. "You have done as much as anyone in 20 years to help our city."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfree or at 423-757-6340.